Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer describes a variety of malignant (cancerous) tumors that affect the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), sinuses, nose, thyroid and salivary glands. Most of these cancers begin in the squamous cells that make up the moist tissues lining the nose, mouth and throat; others form in the cells of the thyroid and salivary glands.

The areas affected by head and neck cancer treatment control vital functions, including breathing, swallowing, chewing and speaking. As a result, treating head and neck cancer is more than removing a tumor and killing cancer cells. It also includes repairing the body so that patients can still perform those vital functions. The main treatment options for head and neck cancers include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first immunotherapy drugs for head and neck cancer, specifically for recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma that progressed during or after chemotherapy that contained a platinum drug. These immunotherapy drugs are called immune checkpoint inhibitors and block the PD-1 receptor on certain immune cells (T-cells) to block specific proteins and receptors from triggering a slowdown of the immune system.

Immunotherapy offers people with this type of head and neck cancer an alternative treatment option that is less invasive and disfiguring than some surgeries, bringing new hope to people with cancers in the head and neck region.

Research continues to expand the development of new treatment options for early-stage head and neck cancers and to find other types of immunotherapies that boost the immune system in different ways. In addition, immunotherapies approved for other types of cancers are being evaluated in clinical trials for head and neck cancers trials (see Clinical Trials). Talk with your doctor to determine if a clinical trial is right for you.


FDA-Approved Immunotherapies for Head and Neck Cancer*
As of 12/5/17
nivolumab (Opdivo)
pembrolizumab (Keytruda)

*Each therapy is prescribed based on specific criteria. Discuss your options
with your doctor.

Additional Resources


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